‘Death neither obeys the school timetable nor appears on it… it enters the classroom without knocking’ (from the website ‘Winston’s Wish’).

A charter for bereaved children can be found on www.winstonswish.org.uk

In my many years of teaching I never had to teach a child whose parents had died, although working in an infant school with mostly army parents there were many times when children and their parents were worried about their loved ones in Northern Ireland and beyond.

On several occasions I had to comfort and help children whose grandparents or other relatives had died. Each situation was different and the way I reacted to each was different; what was important was to allow the child to talk about it and to give reassurance.

To do nothing was not an option. Bereaved children need support as well as the opportunity to talk about their feelings about losing a loved one. In most cases bereaved children may feel sad or angry; some may feel guilt about the death and it is vital to make sure that they know that they are in no way to blame.

The child’s age can affect what they understand about death of a loved one. With pre-school children, in particular, it is important to make sure that you act on the parent’s wishes so that the message that you, as the child’s teacher or key worker send out to the child reflects the parents’ views. When the deceased loved one is old, in the case of a grandparent, it is easier to explain their leaving; it is harder to relate to the death of a sibling or other young child.

Usually the message about a bereavement will come to you before the child returns to school and this will give you time to prepare the class. While the way each child handles this difficult situation will differ, there are several ways for you to approach this, such as talking about:

  • lifespan; about birth and death
  • different causes of death
  • how it is dealt with in different cultures
  • funerals and memorials
  • our feelings, thoughts and behaviour about death
  • keeping memories alive.

If we don’t deal empathetically and effectively with this it can lead to the bereaved child becoming depressed, showing symptoms such as physical complaints, irritability, withdrawal or exhibiting feelings of unhappiness or misery.

Promoting Children’s Mental Health within Early Years and School Settings (DfEE June 2001) states on page 34: ‘Factors which make children and young people vulnerable to depression include: family breakdown, death or loss of a loved one, neglect, abuse, bullying and other adverse life events.’

These mental problems can also affect the child’s ability to learn.

PSE

Talking about death, how we feel about and react to it can be included in the PSE (personal, social and health education) programme. When this is in place, children can be prepared for death through story, discussion and activities and you will help children to express their feelings as they relate to situations of loss and death. You will also have helped them to realise that it’s no one’s fault that these things happen and remove the guilt that some children feel when they suffer loss, grief and bereavement. If at some point the child experiences death for him/herself it will provide a reference point for more personal discussion.

Bereavement means being deprived of a relation or friend by death, but it can also be about separation or divorce.

Take a look at your own PSE programme:

  • Does it contain a strand of discussion and activities to prepare children for feelings of loss and how to deal with these?
  • Are there suggestions for ways to help children to understand the feelings of others who grieve?
  • Is there a list of story books to use that will help children to relate to, and understand the feelings of, others who have lost relatives in some way?

If not, you will need to initiate a discussion with the adults in your setting and make decisions of what to include in your programme. In this way they will have ownership of the strand dealing with loss, grief and bereavement.

Talking about loss

Starting with other kinds of loss is a good way in. With very young children this can be most effectively achieved in circle time, using story, discussion and activities. Teachers who use circle time will have found that the circle provides a secure and closed environment which allows everyone to talk about the kinds of feelings that loss and bereavement bring. Talk about loss such as of toys or personal possessions. In later sessions you can discuss pets which may get lost or die, before talking about losing people who move on, move out or die. There are many picture story books that can help you to illustrate your message to children and which will lead to useful discussions.

Practical ideas

Lost In circle time, talk about children who get lost and ask your group to tell you if any of them have been lost and how they felt when they were lost and then found. Make a list of these feelings.

Talk about things they have lost, such as toys, precious possessions, parts of games or books and how we feel when we lose something. Is it worse when we lose something that is precious? What about things that are really valuable? When we lose something that has little of no value to others but is precious to us do we have the same kinds of feelings? Ask the children to tell you all the words and phrases they know about how they feel when they lose something. Is it the same as the list about when they got lost?  Use story books such as Dogger.

Missing Talk about pets that go missing. Have some people in their families moved on – perhaps to go to a boarding school, college or to work away from home. Talk about how the person going can keep in touch with the rest of the family. Have any of your children missed a relative who had to go to hospital? Ask how they kept in touch; perhaps they sent letters and gifts or visited their relative.

Parents who work away Sometimes parents work away from home and return at weekends; parents who serve in the forces may have long spells away from home. Talk to your class about how their children may be feeling, both when the parent goes away and when they return.  Examine ways in which these families keep in touch with each other. Use story books such as Dear Daddy.

Parents who move on More and more children come from families where parents have separated or divorced. In these cases we must make sure that the children who are affected do not have any guilt feelings about this. Perhaps you can advise parents to make sure that the children know that both their parents still love them and that the break-up has nothing to do with the child’s behaviour or attitude.

Pets that die Children who have pets may have experienced the death of one of these; small pets such as gerbils and hamsters have a short lifespan. Can any of your class tell you how they felt when a pet died? What did they do? Was there a funeral? How do they remember the pet? Do they have photographs or videos that help? Use story books such as I’ll Always Love You.

People After such preparatory discussions you will have paved the way for talking about death of a loved one. It’s easier to talk about an old person dying with a positive focus on all the things they did in their life; not so easy to talk about the death of a sibling or a young parent. Children who have lost a sibling through death may be very disturbed by the riot of feelings they experience. They will have lost someone they love, a friend who shared their life. They may experience feelings of guilt that they are to blame in some way or worry that they themselves may die soon. A death of a parent may cause a move to a different house, certainly a change of lifestyle.  Together with the child’s parents you can rebuild the child’s confidence and acceptance of this new and different kind of life.  Use story books such as Granpa.

Memories Read and talk about the Picture Puffin book, Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge, by M Fox (1984) about Miss Nancy who has lost her memory.

You may like to look at funeral traditions of people from other countries. In this country people often wear dark clothes to show that they are sad, while in other countries they wear white or colours. Nowadays the funeral ceremony is usually a celebration of the life of the person who has died.

At funerals the family may ask people to write for a memory book, some produce a blank paper for each of those present to write a short memory of the person who has died. Sometimes people take away these away and inscribe verses or include photographs of the person to be put in the book later so that the family will have wider memories of their loved one.

Talk to the children about memory boxes. These are boxes of artefacts that hold memories about the person who has died. Often parents of babies who have died will put in them an article of clothing, photographs and other things that hold memories of the children. Parents who are terminally ill sometimes gather together things that will hold memories for their children after the parent’s death. Often they leave a letter or memory about their children as babies, trying to pass on family information that would otherwise be lost.

In circle time you could encourage the children to think of a memory of one of their parents or another member of the family – something that they remember about the person that will bring them into focus always. Perhaps you can help them to share a memory of their own life that they would like to remember to tell their own children one day.

Using picture books Using stories is a wonderful way of conveying emotion and feelings without putting the children themselves in the frame. They can empathise with the characters without becoming too involved; they can explore the feelings without feeling the pain. There are many picture books with stories of people feeling sadness or grief about some kind of loss. Many you will already know and may have read to the children without seeing the potential for discussion about loss and grief. Search through your class and school library and make a collection of such books.

A programme of activities such as is found in It’s OK to be Sad will help all the class to be prepared; ready to understand another child’s feelings in their loss. 

  • Burningham, J (1988) Granpa, Picture Puffin.
  • Collins, M (2005) It’s OK to be Sad: Activities to Help Children Aged 4-9 to Manage Loss, Grief or Bereavement, a Lucky Duck book, Paul Chapman Publishing, Sage, London.
  • Dupasquier, P (2002) Dear Daddy, Anderson Press.
  • Hughes, S (1977) Dogger, Picture Lions.
  • Wilhelm, H (1985) I’ll Always Love You, Hodder & Stoughton.

Supporting Bereaved Students in Primary and Secondary Schools: Practical Advice for Staff is a new booklet that has been developed by King’s College London and the National Council for Hospice and Specialist Palliative Care Services. It offers advice and support to school staff and includes tips from teachers who have had experience with bereaved children. An extensive resource list is included for those who wish to look further into the issues explored or enlist further support.

For further information or to order a copy (at £5 each) contact Clarissa Jones on 020 7520 8299.

General advice on pupil counselling is also available at: www.teachernet.gov.uk/emergencies/planning

www.winstonswish.org.uk

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